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Fighting grade inflation, real or imagined: Latin honors changes a short fix

Published: November 18, 2011
Section: Front Page

Students will never be particularly angry about grade inflation, but it creates contention between faculty and staff, who argue about the solutions, culprits and the question of its existence.

Last April, Brandeis considered changing the Latin honors system to a percentage-based system, which would rank cum laudes by top 5, 10 or 15 percent. The change would significantly decrease the number of recipients­­—currently about 50 percent—temporarily but, according to Mark Hewitt, the university registrar, “it would only push the problem further down the road.”

A change in the reward system would not solve grade inflation, only mask its symptoms, he said. “Ten years down the road,” Hewitt said, “we’d likely have the same problem.”

There would be short-term issues, as well. Students would be less able to track their own accomplishments. “The problem with a percentage-based system is that it is essentially arbitrary. A student’s not going to know from year to year what exact level of GPA is going to get you which level of honors,” Hewitt said.

Some faculty members are more concerned about grade inflation.

Professor Thomas Doherty (AMST) suggested two solutions for grade inflation: “First, get rid of pass-fail,” he said, explaining how students often manipulate the pass-fail system to their advantage and use it to raise their GPA rather than for its intended use.

“It was created so that a science major could take a poetry class or the poetry major could take a science, but we all know that students cover bad grades so they can keep their GPA high.”

He also warned of misuse in the course evaluation system for untenured professors. “Course evaluations are taken into account when awarding tenure and, a lot of the time, better grades mean better evaluations.” He fears that professors, in seeking tenure, dole out higher grades in an attempt to court the goodwill of their students.

Hewitt disagreed, explaining that he is not convinced that higher grades are necessarily a result of grade inflation. “If we do our job really well, there’s no reason everybody in the class can’t get an A. Are we testing the knowledge someone has received, or some artificial distribution with 10 percent who are elite and 10 percent who are not?”

A required grading system, whether a bell curve or straight scale, was met with universal chagrin.

“Every professor is captain of their own ship,” Doherty contended, “What a teacher tries to do is clearly state their standards and apply them equitably. And students demand that.”

Hewitt felt similarly and emphasized the importance of acquiring knowledge rather than a grade.

The changes in teaching methods in the last 30 years has also changed the way professors grade, he said. Professors take more into account than is evident, especially in the case of experiential learning, which Brandeis has taken steps to expand in the past two years.

While the proposed changes to the Latin honors system have been shelved in favor of the administration’s strategic plan to balance the university’s finances, the debate is not going away.

A national problem, grade inflation has compelled a few highly selective schools, including Princeton, to get rid of Latin honors completely. Hewitt assured that a lack of cum laude would not negatively affect the value of a Brandeis degree.